Neverness by David Zindell – A book review

19 December 2013

A short, spoiler-free review of the science fiction adventure novel Neverness by David Zindell.

Every once in a while you come across a book that surprises you, it takes you by the scruff of your neck and thrusts you into a world so well imagined, deep and complex that you lose yourself in it entirely. Neverness is such a book.

The story follows Mallory Ringess, a young Pilot of the Order that finds himself in deep space on a mission that could have been entirely avoided if he wasn’t such a hot-headed, arrogant and stubborn man-child. Zindell expertly tells this tale in the first person and gives us the insight into Mallory’s personality necessary for us to warm to him. It’s ultimately this decision that allows the novel to succeed so completely. As a reader you find yourself sympathising with the flawed pilot and before long you are cheering for him on his dangerous quest. Each trial leaves Mallory changed and it’s these changes that contribute to one of the main themes of the book, is it possible to transcend our genetic programming and control our destinies? 

Secondary and ancillary characters are handled just as deftly as our protagonist. Mallory’s portly best friend Bardo provides welcome comic relief during some of the most thematically sombre parts of the novel. But he is no mere mouthpiece. There is a depth to Mallory and Bardo’s relationship that really lifts the novel and gives it a great warmth and familiarity. Another character highlight is the Lord Pilot of the Order Soli whose frictional relationship with Mallory is responsible for some of the most gut-wrenching moments I’ve read. The range of emotions that these relationships invoke in the reader adds a complexity that is often missing in a lot of science fiction and adventure novels. As such, every event carries with it a weight that supersedes those in most space operas.

In addition to depth and complexity, the sheer scope of this novel is nothing short of astounding. It’s easy to see why Zindell has been compared with the likes of Olaf Stapledon and even Tolkien. The scale of his adventure juxtaposed against an intimate first person narrative imbues a sense of wonder in the reader. It’s a feat few novels achieve and even fewer manage to sustain this over hundreds of pages. Like a rag doll I was catapulted from the microcosm of Neanderthal life to a tragic war in the in the far reaches of space and back again. And I liked it. A lot.

Combine these elements – an ambitious story, well rounded characters and themes that connect humanity across thirty thousand years of imagined future and you have an the makings of a great, timeless novel. But Zindell doesn’t stop there, because he also writes beautifully. His words are a pleasure to read, his descriptions succinct yet powerful and his prose poetic. There was one moment I remember clearly, where Mallory and Soli were riding their sleds across the snow in freezing conditions and Zindell’s words shot a shiver of cold down my body.

But it was too cold to snow. We depended on the cold, even though the cold knifed through our furs and chilled us to the core. In truth, the cold nearly killed us. It was so cold that the snow was dry and gritty like sand. The air held no moisture, and the sky was deep blue, almost blue-black like an eschatologist’s folded robes. The dry chill air worked at our noses until they began to bleed. We sucked in air hard as icicles, and we felt ice points crystallizing in our nostrils, freezing and cutting our warm, tunnelled flesh.

It would be easy to imagine another writer struggle to explore the kind of themes present in the novel. But Zindell uses the first person narrative to great effect, with Mallory’s personal journey of change and discovery serving as the novel’s main method of thematic exposition.

We are sheep awaiting the butcheries of time; we are clots of brain tissue and bundles of muscle, meat machines that jump to the touch of our most immediate passions; we – I have said this before – we react rather than act; we have thoughts in place of thinking. We are, simply, robots; robots aware that we are robots, but robots nonetheless.

And yet. And yet we are something more. I have seen a dog, Yuri’s beloved Kyoko, a lowly beast whose programs were mostly muzzle and hunger, growls and smell, overcome her fear and flight programs to hurl herself at a great white bear, purely out of love for her master. Even dogs possess a spark of free will. And for humans, within each of us, I believe, burns a flame of free will. In some it is tenuous and dim as an oilstone’s flame; in others it burns hot and bright. But if our will is truly free, why do our robot programs run our bodies and minds? Why do we not run our programs? Why do we not write our own programs? Was it possible that all women and men could free themselves and thus become their own masters?

As I came to the end of this marvellous adventure I found myself very reluctant to let Mallory and Neverness go, to the point where I almost flipped the book over and started again at page one. I simply have too many good books to read, not to mention the sequels, but I have no doubt that I will return to this novel sooner rather than later. And while I’m hesitant to say such a thing so soon after finishing it, I can’t deny the impact this book has had on me. It’s one of, if not the best book I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.